Uncanny [Interface] Valley?

As I type this, I am deleting Microsoft Office from my computer. I had downloaded the free trial, in order to catch myself up a bit on the programs, for all the job listings that “require” “familiarity with Microsoft Office”, or words to that effect.[0] In some ways, they’ve vastly improved over the last version I used. On the other hand, I’d still take MSWord 5.1 (that’s vintage ’93, for those of you too young to remember) over any version I’ve seen since, if I had the choice. In fact, IMHO, the only application in the bunch that has actually improved in the last few versions is Excel—which is also the only one that is probably superior to its competitors. (I say “probably” because I’m less confident that I’m familiar with all of the options where spreadsheets are concerned.) It looks like the latest versions have stopped moving menu items around, at least—none of that “adapting” to how you work, which completely undermines the muscle memory of where commands are. And, I have to admit, the interfaces really have gotten better.

And yet…

I’m wondering if there is a phenomenon like the Uncanny Valley of robotics that applies to user interfaces. Is “almost right” actually worse than “not right”, in some cases? It’s hard to say—in a month, I didn’t get really familiar with the new interfaces, so it’s possible it was just getting used to a new interface. I certainly had that issue when I first started using OmniGraffle, which behaves very differently from anything else I’ve ever used. But, at the same time, I regularly noted how much easier it was to find something, or do something, than with older versions of MS Office—or with OpenOffice, which basically clones the last-generation MS Office interface. And then I’d run up against some wall, where I knew it could do something, but I had to go what felt like the bass-ackward route to get there. [Sorry, my trial period already expired, so I can’t confirm a specific example. I think dealing with page margins was one of them, however.] But, stepping back, in most of these cases, I’d have to admit that the new interface was probably better than the old—just not what I’m used to. Yet still not as good as, say, Pages’ interface.

So, did the new interface frustrate me more by being “almost right” than older versions, that were just plain poor, did? It seemed like it. I certainly know that I tend to get more annoyed by other software that gets close, and then does something stupid: the inconsistency of icon-dragging behavior in OS X (dock vs. sidebar vs. stack vs. window) perhaps bug me more than it would if nothing behaved consistently—if every bit of interface had its own behaviors, that is. I’d be curious to hear if others have similar experiences: as software interfaces improve, is there a stage at which they get in some sense worse to use, before getting better again? Is that what all the negative feedback about the ribbon interface is about?

Oh, and despite the improvements in the apps themselves, the install and de-install process is still lousy. 10 out of 10 for including an uninstaller app, very easily found in the Microsoft Office folder. However, all that app does is move the Microsoft Office folder to the trash. That’s the part I don’t need help with. It doesn’t do anything about the numerous folders full of stuff that the installer scattered about my harddrive. On top of that, by bypassing the Finder for the trash/delete, it also didn’t trigger the utility I have installed that normally looks for all that crap and offers to delete it for me when I delete an app. So I had to go digging through both the user and system libraries, culling stuff from multiple locations. And this part may not be the fault of Microsoft [it might be inherent to OS X], but I’m also now left with bunches of files on my computer that have been associated with various MS apps that I don’t have on my computer. In addition to the obvious (it grabbed all the .ppt and .doc and .xls files), it also defined new associations for most of my fonts (.ttf)—redefining them as “Microsoft Excel 97-2004 workbook” files, and grabbed all sorts of generic formats, like .tsv. So I’ll probably be cleaning up after it for quite some time, as I discover more such things. Even if it weren’t for price [too high] and usability [poorer than the competition], the way that Microsoft’s apps seem to infect your system is a pretty good reason to stay away, IMHO.

[0] I think what annoys me so much about that expectation is that good facility with computers makes it mostly irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve really used any version of Microsoft Office in 15 years, and yet I got “intermediate” ratings [on a basic—intermediate—advanced scale] on timed proficiency tests, while wrestling with a qwerty keyboard (which I haven’t typed on regularly for at least a decade). Partly because other apps frequently imitate MS Office’s capabilities and/or interface, and partly because most GUI/WIMP apps behave basically the same these days, knowledge of a specific app not only shouldn’t be a requirement, it isn’t. If you know how to do the things that the app does, you can probably do them with that app, with minimal time wasted. At least, that’s my experience. I don’t really get how CAD programs work, so when I’ve used one, I’ve been horribly inefficient. But I get how word processors work, so when I’ve tried a new one, I’m very rapidly up to speed. (And I’ve done that a lot, lately, because I still haven’t found one i really like.) I might be annoyed by differing interface conventions, but I’m not stymied by them. Anyway, point is, I’m probably gonna do better, once i get a dvorak keyboard, than lots of people who’ve had a lot more experience with MSOffice, once I actually get my hands on it and start using it regularly, so it’s really frustrating to be shut out from a lot of office jobs just because I haven’t hobbled myself with crappy overpriced software for the last couple decades. Yet another problem with standardizing on software, rather than formats.


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